Market Tour: Di Bruno Bros., Philadelphia
It might seem counterintuitive for a specialty cheese shop to set its products ablaze, but in the case of Philadelphia's Di Bruno Bros., the fire hazard led to a fortuitous forking finish: fettucine alfredo.
Di Bruno Bros., a Philly fixture since FDR was in office, celebrated the grand opening of its newest location by showing off what they did best—hawking rare Euro cheeses, stretching and braiding mozzarella by hand and, in a fit of D.O.P.-approved pyromania, filling wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano with flaming brandy for on-the-spot cheese sauce. Such showmanship is of a piece with the brand's dedication to customer service, which its owners will tell you is the key to it all.
Natives of Abruzzo, Italy, Danny and Joe Di Bruno opened their first still-going-strong shop in South Philly's Italian Market in 1939. A constant hub of culinary activity best-known to outsiders for its appearance in the Rocky II training montage, this strip of Ninth Street is home to the oldest operational outdoor market in the United States, and the original Di Bruno's, as tight as a two-car garage, continues to be a fixture. In 1990, third-generation cousins Emilio and Bill Mignucci bought the business from their elders, gradually expanding it from South Philly to Center City and beyond.
With real estate expansion came conceptual growth, too. Originally focused on Italian meats, cheeses, and groceries, Di Bruno Bros. now highlights dairy products from around the globe. On any given day, their capped 'mongers will eagerly offer tastes of Shropshire Blue from England, Spanish Mahon, Swiss Gruyère Surchoix, and whatever else your worldly palate fancies. This is true of all Di Bruno's locations, but there are several products and elements unique to its fifth store, a 4,500-square-foot operation in the ground floor of The Franklin building at Eighth and Chestnut.
"It's a comfortable place for people to shop every day—a much different setup than Ninth Street, which is more of a destination, with lots of transient and out-of-town business," says Emilio Mignucci, citing the regular business of high-rise tenants, white-collar lunchers, and downtown hospital employees as the motivation behind this shop's new fixtures.
In front of the wraparound cold cases, filled with a number of imported and housemade sausages and a roster of prepared items to take home, you'll find the main display, home to cooking demos and free-to-shopper samples. There's also a notable selection of fresh produce and pantry items, ranging from everyday veggies to high-end dried pastas and Fee Brothers cocktail bitters.
Opposite this shopping space, they've set up the hot foods section, featuring fresh-made to-go dishes and a selection of panini prepared with the TurboChef, a space-age sandwich prepper that combines the speed of a microwave with the crunch-developing convection heat of a toaster. This half of Di Bruno's at The Franklin also has a cooler stocked with a wide selection of fresh housemade pastas and a coffee bar, serving and selling a special "Family Blend" developed for the shop by North Carolina's Counter Culture. Other product exclusives include a distinct unfiltered Sicilian olive oil developed for Di Bruno Bros. by Italian oil king Manfredi Barbera.
In the coming months, Emilio plans to expand his new market's reach to include a larger focus on delivery and catering—built-in business, given the primo location—but walk-in customers, addressed by Di Bruno's front line of enthusiastic staffers, will always be able to find what they need. "You have to get a feel for your neighborhood and the community," he says. "To be a good retailer, you have to be a good listener."